The Yankees limped into the post-season playing poorly during September and losing a division which they had led for much of the second half, but looked like a very different team during their first round sweep of the Minnesota Twins. A major part of their post-season success has been that Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte, at least in the first round, exceeded most expectations and put many doubts to rest.The two pitchers turned in very strong outings during the Yankees sweep of the Twins. If they continue to pitch like this during the next two rounds, the Yankees will be very tough to beat.
Pitching rotations are quite different in the post-season than during the regular season. During the regular season, fourth and fifth starters are essential to a team’s success. During the post-season, fifth starters are superfluous and fourth starters are optional. This leads to something of a discrepancy between what is needed to win in the regular season and in the playoffs. In New York, the local media has spent a great deal of time speculating about how the Yankees should line up their pitching rotation and who, if anybody, they should use as a fifth starter.
The Yankees success against Minnesota, and potential for success during the rest of the post-season, however, has been due to a strong offense as much as to good starting pitching. Here again, the additional rest allowed in the post-season has allowed the Yankees to use a different approach than the one they used during the regular season. Because games are not played every day, the Yankees can use Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada as their full time third baseman and catcher respectively. Aging stars Posada and Rodriguez did not quite fulfill this role during the season, playing only 83 and 124 games at catcher and third base respectively, while Posada was the DH 28 times and Rodriguez 12 times. Keeping fragile but potent layers like Posada (OPS+ 116) and Rodriguez (OPS+ 123) behind the plate and at third base for every post-season game helps the offense, but more importantly it allows Yankees to platoon Lance Berkman (OPS+ 114) and Marcus Thames (OPS+ 122) at DH, making the Yankees to be a much stronger and deeper lineup during the post-season.
This is not a question of the Yankees being healthy in time for the post-season, although that certainly helps. It is a question of the additional days off being friendly to a team that relies upon old stars at key positions. During the regular season Francisco Cervelli (OPS+ 88) caught 90 games; and Ramiro Pena (OPS+ 36) played 48 games at third. In 13 games, of which the Yankees won six, they were both in the starting lineup. With one or both of these players in the lineup, the Yankees were a considerably weaker offensive team than they need to be.
While much of the speculation about the Yankees, and their manager Joe Girardi, has focused on who Girardi will start if he needs a fourth starter, there is no clear right decision, or clearly wrong answer to that question. Girardi will have to start somebody and hope for the best. However, assuming the players remain healthy, the most important thing Girardi can do to help his team win is not write Francisco Cervelli or Ramiro Pena’s name into the starting lineup. Shortening the Yankee lineup by starting one of these very weak hitters undermines one of two real comparative advantages, the other being having the best closer, the Yankees have over any potential opponent-a lineup that hits from top to bottom.